By IAN WILSON
Never mind the undercard, the heavyweights have arrived.
The second round of the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL) playoffs gets underway on Friday, Aug. 11th after the top seeds in the East and West Divisions swept their way to victory in their best-of-three opening series.
The renewed rivalries feature a rematch of the 2022 Division Finals, which pitted the Moose Jaw Miller Express against the Medicine Hat Mavericks in the East and the Sylvan Lake Gulls against the Okotoks Dawgs in the West.
Here’s a little more information about Round 2 of the WCBL postseason:
Head-to-Head: The Okotoks Dawgs swept the Sylvan Lake Gulls in the postseason last year, claiming a 4-0 victory in the first game and generating just enough offence in the second game against star pitchers Josh Tucker and Ty Boudreau to pull out a 4-3 win. Tucker and Boudreau returned to the Gulls this season and look to help Sylvan Lake avenge last year’s playoff loss to the reigning WCBL champions. Matt Wilkinson – who closed games out for the Dawgs last year and was drafted by the Cleveland Guardians this summer – is no longer a late-inning option for Okotoks.
During the 2023 regular season, the Gulls and Dawgs faced each other 10 times, with Okotoks prevailing in seven contests. The Dawgs punched through 50 runs in those games, while Sylvan Lake scored 40 times. Most recently, the two squads met up in late July for a three-game set that saw the Gulls romp to an 11-3 win to start the series, the Dawgs come out on top in a back-and-forth 9-8 affair, and then Okotoks finished the season series with a tight 2-1 victory at Gulls Field.
Dawgs Players: Infielder Ricky Sanchez led the way offensively for Okotoks against the Fort McMurray Giants in the first round of the playoffs. He collected four hits and three runs batted in (RBI) in eight at bats. Brendan Luther – the 2022 WCBL Playoff MVP – added three hits, two runs and a pair of RBI in his nine at bats. On the mound, southpaw Graham Brunner pitched six innings of no-run baseball to pick up a win against the Giants, while righty Logan Rumberg also logged six innings to earn the other victory over Fort McMurray. Dustin Schorie, meanwhile, had a save in the series and the bullpen did not allow a run.
Gulls Players: Catcher Hank Dodson and infielder Cleary Simpson were tops in hits for the Gulls in the opening round against the Lethbridge Bulls, with both batters swatting five hits in eight at bats. Two-way player Tyler McWillie was one of three Sylvan Lake hitters to homer and he scored five runs for the Gulls. The well-rounded offence of the Gulls also saw utility man Nick Groves, outfielder Chase Rodriguez and infielder Easton Jones all contribute a trio of RBI each. On the bump, Ty Boudreau and Josh Tucker recorded wins and Tucker racked up 11 Ks in the series opener for the Gulls.
Okotoks Team Stats: The Dawgs went 40-16 in the regular season to secure first place in the WCBL and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They defeated Fort McMurray 8-0 in the first game of the postseason and followed that up with a 4-2 victory to close out the series. Collectively, the Okotoks batters have 26 postseason hits, 12 runs, two doubles, one home run, three stolen bases, three walks, 13 strikeouts and a .356 batting average in 73 at bats. In 18 innings, Dawgs pitchers have given up 10 hits, two walks and two earned runs while registering 16 strikeouts.
Sylvan Lake Team Stats: The Gulls finished second in the West Division with a 38-18 record during the regular season. Sylvan Lake defeated the Bulls 13-4 in the playoff series opener and finished Lethbridge off with a 12-7 win. Through 83 at bats, Gulls batters slapped out 32 playoff hits, scored 25 runs, picked up seven doubles, launched three homers, walked seven times, stole five bases and struck out 14 times. Their collective batting average was .386. In 18 postseason innings, pitchers had a 4.50 ERA, surrendered 19 hits, seven walks and nine earned runs while racking up 24 Ks.
Head-to-Head: The Miller Express swept past the Mavericks last summer en route to the WCBL championship final against Okotoks. Moose Jaw won the first game 7-2 and followed that up with a 5-1 triumph. Right-handed pitcher Kellan Voggesser, who won the opener of that series, is back with the Miller Express this summer.
In the 2023 regular season, the two clubs squared off 10 times and Medicine Hat won seven games. It was a high-scoring rivalry that saw the Mavs finish with a narrow 61-60 edge in runs scored. The final two games of the season series took place at Ross Wells Park in early August and Medicine Hat won 10-5 and 8-6.
Miller Express Players: Not surprisingly, WCBL batting champ Dawson Tweet has been an offensive catalyst for the Miller Express in the playoffs. After the first two games of the postseason versus Swift Current, Tweet leads the club in several statistical categories, including batting average (.625), hits (5), doubles (2), runs (3) and RBI (4). The lefty slugger also has two stolen bases. Supporting Tweet in the lineup is first baseman Austin Gurney, who has three hits, three RBI, two runs and a homer.
Mavericks Players: Second baseman Brady Bean is setting the tone in the Medicine Hat lineup when he steps in the batter’s box. During the playoff series against the Regina Red Sox, the Washington-state product went 6-for-9 at the plate, with five runs, two doubles, three RBI, three stolen bases and a long ball. Shortstop Tyler Vanneste, meanwhile, has a .400 batting average, four RBI and a homer. Lefty pitcher Edrian Rangel opened the postseason with a win that saw him strikeout six batters in six innings, while giving up just one earned run. Dylan Esquival, another southpaw, allowed just one hit through five innings, while picking up 6 Ks in a series-clinching victory.
Moose Jaw Team Stats: The Miller Express ran away with a the East Division pennant by going 38-18 in the regular season. When playoffs rolled around, they took care of the 57’s in the minimum amount of games required by taking the opener 7-2 and the second game by an 8-6 score. Moose Jaw hitters have a .313 batting average in 67 at bats, as well as 21 hits, 15 runs, three doubles, two homers, 12 RBI, eight walks, six stolen bases and 11 strikeouts. Their pitchers have a collective 4.00 ERA, having given up eight earned runs, 15 walks and 13 hits in their 18 innings of work. They’ve also struck out 18 opposing batters.
Medicine Hat Team Stats: The Mavericks went 30-16 in the regular season and finished eight games back of the Miller Express in second spot in the East Division. They dispatched the Regina Red Sox rather easily, with an 11-3 victory in Game 1 and a 9-1 win in Game 2. In 74 postseason at bats, the hitters on the Mavericks have combined for a a .324 batting average, 24 hits, 20 runs, six doubles, three homers, 14 RBI and 10 walks. They struck out 17 times and runners were 6-for-7 on the base paths. Medicine Hat pitchers posted a pristine 1.50 ERA in 18 innings. They allowed 12 hits, three earned runs and seven walks while piling up 20 Ks.
The battle for the WCBL championship Harry Hallis Memorial Trophy – between the top team in the East Division and the best squad from the West Division – will get started on Tuesday, Aug. 15th. The second game follows on Wednesday, Aug. 16th and a third and deciding game, if necessary, will take place on Thursday, Aug. 17th.